Stacey Morrison enjoys a girls' getaway on Waiheke Island.
Suggesting a weekend away taking bush walks on Waiheke Island wasn't a hard sell to three of my girlfriends, although they freely admitted most of their walking on Waiheke up until that point had been through wineries. With 12 children between us, each of us with busy careers, finding some time to get away was the challenge, but we soaked up the revitalisation offered by every moment, right from when the ferry left downtown Auckland. Dropping corporate heels for hiking boots, our weekend escape gave us a preview of some of the tracks accessible during the Waiheke Walking Festival, which runs from November 15-24, with free, themed walks throughout the 10 days.
In its 10th year, the festival is designed to get more locals and visitors out in the lush Waiheke scenery, no matter their age or fitness level. This was key for at least one of my friends, whose first remark to our guide was: "Do you know CPR? You might need to do it on me."
This year, the festival programme features some favourite past walks and introduces new ones, covering different themes and distances. The themes are broad: family fun walks; mums and bubs; night-sky walks; geocaching; dog walking; extreme coastal; storytelling walk and picnic — there's even a choir walk and haiku hiking, and (perhaps inevitably) one for wine lovers.
For the more seasoned tramper, Te Ara Hura winds 100km around the island over five days. That particular path has been altered this year because of Kauri dieback, and our guide ensured we all washed our footwear as we started our 8km walk exploring the Te Whau peninsula.
Hauraki Gulf Conservation Trust chair and Te Whau resident Ian Burrows was our guide, and his love for the local landscape is infectious. The festival guides are volunteers who enjoy sharing the stories of the places and people these walks introduce us to. Burrows knows the tracks so well he notices newly fallen trees and shares botanical knowledge, as well as history of Māori and early European settlers in the area. Stunning coastal views greeted us at the end of hill climbs, and he set a manageable pace that fit the 7/10 difficulty scale of the walk. Our CPR-inquirer asked at each incline: "Is this the seven out of 10 part?"
In just a few hours we were amazed at the range of landscapes we passed through, from dense bush to clifftops, across beaches and even private properties that agree for the festival to use their pathways. A tasty packed lunch we collected from the Rocky Bay Cafe, at the Omiha Memorial Hall, felt well-earned when we chose one of many picturesque spots for our pit-stop. At the end of the walk we felt the camaraderie of spirit in our little crew that comes from being in unmistakably New Zealand bush.
A mid-afternoon finish meant we could enjoy our stylish accommodation at the Villas Waiheke. The villas are self-contained, with stunning views and facilities, including a pool and spa that beckons after exercise. Dinner at Three Seven Two in Onetangi ensured our day was balanced with wholesome and flavoursome elements.
To fit in another themed walk the next morning before we returned to our families, we chose the Whakanewha Mindfulness walk, led by Mel Burdett, a local yoga teacher, mindfulness practitioner and professional coach. Starting with breathing exercises before we moved into the bush, Burdett asked us to simply be mindful of how we were feeling. The response came fast: "Um, hung over." Through her skilful, and kind guidance, the dustiness was lifted — helped by forest air and beautiful morning light in the Whakanewha bush. Invigorating the mind and body is what this guided walk promises, and it delivered. We are all open to mindfulness techniques, and Burdett quickly had us appreciating the environment, noticing nuances of the bush and using all our senses to be in the moment. She let us be energised by the forest and got our blood pumping. We finished with a guided meditation that melded the inspiration from an hour and a half of moving through lush scenery.
After a top-notch high tea and bubbles at Batch Winery, we headed home, realising that taking time to walk in our breathtaking landscapes, with excellent guides and good friends, is real soul food.
DETAILS: For information on Waiheke Walking festival, go to waihekewalkingfestival.org.
By becoming a Friend of the Festival ($150) from early September you gain access to book walks ahead of the general public.
For information on Mel Burdett's yoga lessons, go to simplyb.co.nz.
ACCOMMODATION: For information and bookings at Villas Waiheke, go to villaswaiheke.com.